As in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, many parents in the heart of Silicon Valley see their children as all above average, well above average. So are those parents' incomes, educational levels and aspirations for their above-average children.
On Monday night, more than 350 people gathered at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton to hear a panel talk about concerns affecting those above-average children: their mental health, the stress they are under, and what can be done to improve the former, relieve the latter, and ultimately, combat teen suicides.
The event was put together by StarVista, a San Carlos nonprofit organization that provides counseling, skill development and crisis prevention services to children, youth, adults and families.
Three of the panelists are parents at Palo Alto's Gunn High School, where a number of students have committed suicide in recent years. Julie Lythcott-Haims is the author of "How to Raise an Adult" and the parent of a freshman and a junior at Gunn. Kathleen Blanchard is an attorney whose son John Paul was a junior at Gunn in 2009 when he died by suicide. Her youngest child is now a senior at Gunn. Dr. Steven Adelsheim is a Stanford School of Medicine child psychiatrist and director of community partnerships, and parent of a Gunn freshman.
Lythcott-Haims said her book, which came out three months ago, was inspired by her 10 years as a dean of freshman students at Stanford University, where she worked with close to 17,000 students. There she saw "among my well-heeled, affluent students, every year an increasing number who were accomplished on paper ... but less and less familiar with themselves," she said. They seemed to be unable to deal with setbacks and "to be scanning the sidelines all the time for mom and dad."
In speaking with her colleagues across the country, she found out "this was happening everywhere, in communities primarily of affluence, where parents have grown quite accustomed to being involved in the lives of their kids," she said. "Why are so many parents involved in the lives of their college-age sons and daughters?" Lythcott-Haims asked. "Why don't they seem to trust their kids?"
"I wanted to know what was going on," she said.
What she found, she said, is that beginning about 20 years ago, parents "decided we know best what will lead to our kids' success." What this has grown to include, she said, is the right grades, the right classes, the right schools, tutoring, coaching, homework, sports, drama, music, dance, community service and more; sometimes lots more. "We expect them to be perfect at all of this perfect in a way we never were," Lythcott-Haims said.
"In communities like ours, children are effectively breathless, or worse, through this process," she said. "We give them the message that your perfection is what's good enough."
"Where does this lead?" she asked. Administrators at Harvard and Stanford say today's students are "failure deprived," she said, and need to be taught resilience. They are, she said, "a set of students who made it to where everyone told them they should go, but the minute something goes badly they have absolutely no wherewithal to deal with it."
The statistics are bleak. She talked about a survey conducted annually of nearly 80,000 students at 140 campuses by the American College Health Association. (About 26 percent of the students responded to the survey.)
These are the percentage of students who said that at least once in 2014 they had the feeling referred to: 86.4 percent had "felt overwhelmed by all they had to do," 62 percent "felt very sad," 46.4 percent "felt things were hopeless," 32.6 percent "felt so depressed it was difficult to function," and 8.1 percent "seriously considered suicide." Almost every number was worse than in 2013, the year Lythcott-Haims uses for statistics in her book.
And what do those students have to say? Lythcott-Haims said that as she has been visiting communities across the country to talk about her book, she has been trying to speak to students before she speaks to their parents. She asks them what they want her to tell their parents.
"Here's what they say," she said. "Don't plan my entire life for me." "Don't judge us when we take a break." "Stop comparing me to others in my grade." "Trust us in choosing a college that's right for me." "On the way to success there will be failure." "All we need is support, we don't need you to do it for us." "Life is not a video game and it's not all about getting to the next level."
"This holy grail of admission into elite colleges" has something to do with it, Lythcott-Haims said. "I've learned that this really narrow mindset about what kind of colleges we want our kids to go to is harming our kids."
What needs to be done? "We have to let them grow," Lythcott-Haims said. "We gave them life and life is to be lived."
In short, she said: "We have to let them become themselves."
Dr. Steven Adelsheim agreed that removing stress from the lives of children can improve their mental health. "I am really concerned we have a public mental health crisis in this country and in this community when it comes to providing early mental health services for young people," he said.
He said he found striking the relationship between early stress and serious mental health conditions. Many mental health issues actually surface as young as age 14, he said, and three-quarters of all mental health problems appear by age 24. Removing stress can help even with serious mental health issues, he said.
"As we deal with stress early, and as we identify issues early, we have the ability to wrap supports around young people and their families to really improve their outcomes over time," he said.
First of all, dealing with the stress of school, is important, he said.
Also important is talking with others with similar issues. "We're ashamed when our child is dealing with a mental health issue," he said. "We don't talk about it we worry on our own," Dr. Adelsheim said.
But when families can get support, connect with others and learn what is going on, "our stress level drops, our communication improves, and our children are much more successful," he said.
"There are things we can really do and our first step is lowering stress to really help our young people get back on track."
Kathleen Blanchard gave a very personal insight into the issue. In the six years since her son died by suicide, she has discovered "he was suffering from an unknown and un-diagnosed mental health condition" and stress "that ultimately led to his death." There were signals, she said, "but we didn't understand them."
Parents, she said, need to listen to their children. "We need to really understand what they're saying to us, and in order to do that we have to stop talking," she said. "Be curious, be open, seek to know. Be quiet."
She also recommended getting to know their friends "so that if something happens and they see something" they have a connection to pass on the information.
StarVista plans to hold two follow-up sessions with a facilitator for smaller groups, one for the public and one for Sacred Heart parents.
The public session will be on Wednesday, Sept. 30, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in Sacred Heart Prep's Otto Library in the main building. The session for Sacred Heart community parents will be on Wednesday, Oct. 7, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. in the Piano Parlor in the main building.
To RSVP for either session, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A wide array of resources are available at the Teaching Everyone About Mental Health website, started by the sister of a teen who died by suicide.
StarVista has a 24-hour telephone and online support for parents at 650-579-0358 and for teens at 650-579-0350. They have a Teen Crisis Chat Room on its website, OnYourMind.net where teens can share their problems anonymously with trained peer counselors.